Designing Sound Effects for Back To The Future: The Musical – Interview with Sound Designer Gareth Owen
Krotos hits the West End! Gareth Owen, the multiple Olivier & Tony Award-winning sound designer, trusted in Igniter to bring the iconic sound of the DeLorean to the live stage for Back To The Future: The Musical.
“My goal was to stay true to the film, but also to take advantage of the myriad of new sound technology developed in the thirty years since it’s release.” – Gareth Owen, Sound Designer, Back To The Future: The Musical
Hi Gareth, what was it like working on the sound design for such an iconic project?
It was a lot of fun to work on Back to The Future: The Musical, and I realised early on that Krotos Igniter would actually do an awful lot of what we wanted to achieve.
In the show, we are feeding the movement of the DeLorean into Igniter, so as the DeLorean accelerates, Igniter accelerates; as the car turns on stage, we crossfade between the engine and exhaust sound effects – all directly within the plugin. As the car slows down, I could trigger braking and tyre-squealing sounds, and as the car revs up, we can trigger wheelspin sounds.
How the Technology Works
The DeLorean streams OSC (Open Sound Control) data out of it. We take that OSC data and convert it into MIDI, which then allows us to map it to the various parameters in Igniter.
Finally, we control the sounds with a Logitech foot pedal video game controller. We designed software to convert the data from the controller to MIDI, and it worked perfectly.
See and hear the DeLorean in action:
Using Igniter like this is highly performative…perfect for live theatre!
It really was perfect! I’m not certain, but I think this production is the first time that theatre sound design has been done this way, certainly in a stage show. I think this is partly to do with the fact that the tools have only recently become available.
Finally, with designing Back To The Future: The Musical, we could experiment with technology much further, and Krotos stood out in my mind to do this kind of thing! – Gareth Owen
Recently I was sitting in a conference and listening to a sound designer talk about how they had embedded Nintendo Wii controllers into the hilts of swords so that as the sword is swung, there are swooshing and clanging sound effects that are triggered. I thought that the approach they took was so interesting, but at the time, it didn’t really apply to my projects.
Which vehicle sound effects from Igniter did you use to design the DeLorean in the musical?
The first big revelation here is that the main sound is actually the Aston Martin Rapide in Igniter, although we do add some additional exhaust sounds from an actual DeLorean when the car is idling. So we are combining genuine DeLorean sounds with other vehicle sounds for the key moments when the DeLorean sound effects are particularly noticeable.
When you interact with Igniter…you just get a realistic vehicle sound effect that instantly works. That’s what I found so valuable and interesting about the Krotos workflow. – Gareth Owen
Did using a video game controller encourage you to interact with sound in new ways?
Absolutely, to get out of the linear process of drawing automation in the DAW was liberating. You could sit there forever trying to draw a natural-sounding automation curve for vehicle sound effects – I know, I’ve done it!
So in pre-production, I tried it with Olly (Dobson, Actor Portraying Marty) sitting in the DeLorean and revving the engine. I sat there for what seemed like forever trying to draw that curve. That’s why I eventually ended up getting the foot pedal.
I looked at the automation that was recorded afterwards – I had no idea an automation curve could even look like that, so I could definitely never dream of drawing it!
So when you interact with Igniter, either through a pot, fader (or foot controller in this case) you just get a realistic vehicle sound effect that instantly works. That’s what I found so valuable about the Krotos workflow.
“Some really great sound design moments include the starting movements of the car, spinning tyres, gravel flying around and the wrenching of metal as the DeLorean turns get really tight. We triggered these sound effects with the spot sample playback in Igniter, which made it really fun and interesting.” – Gareth Owen
What other sound design tricks and techniques did you try for the sound design of Back To The Future: The Musical?
We use other sound effects in the more traditional fashion over the top, as there’s lots of sound effects synced to time code. Some really great moments include the starting movements of the car, spinning tyres, gravel flying around and the wrenching of metal as the turns get really tight. We triggered these sound effects with the spot sample playback in Igniter, which made it really fun and interesting.
It seems like you found a great middle ground between modern and traditional workflows
For sure – I think of making sound effects a bit like baking a cake – the sound effects library provides the ingredients, but by the time it’s been mixed, seasoned, blended and cooked, the final confection bares little resemblance to the flour, sugar and eggs that went in to it.
Have you used other Krotos plugins in your sound design work?
Yes! In fact, we are using Dehumaniser 2 in MJ: The Musical that is currently on Broadway, for the “Thriller” speech.
We do the famous Vincent Price section live on stage, using a mixture of LiquidSonics cinematic rooms, the live vocal and Dehumaniser 2 running live. We’ve made it a lot more twisted than the original Vincent Price one! Dehumaniser 2 sits as a bed underneath the live vocal, and it works really well.
Your work has been a great step forward for creative sound design – we’re glad Igniter helped you to achieve this!
I think the biggest problem that we have been struggling with in live entertainment is a lack of a reliable way of using plugins. We have to force computers to work together and work out latency, redundancy, all whilst risking computer crashes mid-performance.
“I have been really impressed with Krotos. The software really just does work. You get it up and running and then you don’t have to think about it anymore. It just works. That is essential in a live environment.”
We’re using Krotos Dehumaniser 2 live, every night on Broadway. We’re using Krotos Igniter live every night on the West End without any issues. Back To The Future: The Musical opens on Broadway this summer, so we’ll be using the plugins on both sides of the Atlantic, It’s just great…I just love what you can do with it!